Using the Lat Pull Down Machine to Get Strong for Your First Pull-up

The lat pull down machine is a great way for beginners and intermediate people to learn how to use their back muscles properly so that once sufficient strength is acquired, pull-ups and chin-ups can be performed with proper form. In my experience using the lat pull down machine is the fastest way to teach proper technique transition to make pull-ups quickly.

Here is a video we shot of the lat pull down in use. The cool thing about this particular machine is that the weight that you lift corresponds to the real force you exert. Sometimes machines use complicated pulley systems that actually halve the weight being lifted. This is not the case here.

Why the Lat Pull Down Machine?


The reason why you should start with the lat pull down machine if you are unable to do a single pull-up or chin-up is that this is the best way to learn proper technique for the pull-up. While you are working on perfecting your form, you will also improve your strength and will be soon ready for the real deal on the pull-up bar.

And the reason I’m writing about the lat pull down machine in this article is that most demonstrations you can see online suck – the same way that most people are pathetic at chin-ups and pull-ups, because they don’t know how to engage their back in the movement.

An Exercise Machine That Actually Works?

Most machines in the gyms seem to be a good idea for a workout for somebody who is inexperienced. Problem is, if you never graduate past a “machine user level” you will not learn how to apply the gym strength in the real world.

Cable machines however are the “good guys.” They don’t stabilize the weight for you and also provide constant tension – something that even free weights can’t accomplish all of the timee.

Using the Lat Pull Down Machine Properly

  • Use pronated grip – hands on top. Pronated just means with your palms facing down. The other grip – with your palms up, is called supinated. If you need help remembering which is which, just make a mental note that supinated is the grip you’d hold a cup of soup with. So the pronated grip is the other one. The reason for the pronated grip recommendation is that this is the better position for learning how to use the back. The biceps muscle is weaker here so you are forced to use your back muscles – the lats.
  • Grab shoulder width apart. This is the most natural movement and will be a great aid in learning the pull-up & chin-up, as well as the muscle-up later.
  • Pull down the shoulders with straight arms. This is the key to all pulling movements. Just lower your shoulders without bending the elbows.
  • Next pull with the back and arms. Flex your armpit muscles – the lats, as well as your biceps simultaneously and pull the bar down.
  • Pull the elbows back and touch the chest. When your upper arms become parallel to the ground, start pulling back with your elbows and the muscles of your mid back and touch your chest with the bar. Finish by pushing your chest out.

Action Plan

  • Train 3x per week. This is the recommended training frequency when training to acquire a new skill like this. If the stimulus is any less frequent, chin-ups and pull-ups will not happen any time soon.
  • Do 3 sets of 5 reps. Try to do the sets with proper form. When it becomes easy to do the third set of five, it’s time to add a little bit more weight. Go for the smallest increment possible that the lat pull down machine allows. Even better – if there are small weight plates or dumbbells at your gym, put them on the stack of weights of the machine so that you achieve gradual increases in resistance instead of jumping from one plate to the next.
  • Alternate with 8-12 reps. If you hit a plateau, start alternating those 3 sets of 5 with 3-4 sets of 8-12 reps. So every 3-4 weeks switch between sets of 5 and sets of 8-12.

Where do you stand? Can you do chin-ups and pull-ups easily with proper engagement of the back? Or do you still need to master the lat pull down machine?

21 thoughts on “Using the Lat Pull Down Machine to Get Strong for Your First Pull-up”

  1. Excellent stuff, Yavor. This is exactly how I trained to do pullups back when I couldn’t do a single one. I still occasionally use it just to make sure my form is in check for pullups. It really works. Another good option, if it is available, is the assisted pullup machine.

    -Drew

  2. I think it might depend on which style of assisted pullup machine you use. Some of them have a pad that you rest your knees on, while some have a bar that you stand on. While you can practice things like squeezing the glutes and crossing the legs on the bar-type assisted machines, the ones with a knee pad make that an impossibility. I much prefer the ones you can stand on, as the other kind offers no way to utilize anything below the upper back to help you learn how to involve your whole body in developing good pullup technique, like you mention in the “How to get insanely good” article you wrote.

    -Drew

  3. Great info as always Yavor. I’ve been following your site for sometime but this is my first comment. I have seen great progress with my pull-ups over the last year but have always had a problem with the pronated grip.
    This grip always leaves me “tight” the next day, around the shoulder joint and in the outer part of the pec. It’s better now due to a more balanced traing program but still not 100 %. By the way, neutral grip pull-ups and chins works great but being a big fan of the exercise I want to be able to do the regular pull-ups without the naggging tightness around my shoulder joint and without setting myself up for injury. Do you know if this is a common problem and if there is anyway to get around this? (tried mobility, external rotations, face-pulls etc).

    Thanks a’lot!

    John from Sweden

  4. Excellent technique on the video! As soon as I start to pile on the weights to get a workout I start to use too much body, like I’m on rowing machine!

    Its a good reminder on how do it properly, I think back off the weight and get the form right ( mental note to self …haha)

    Good action plan to change up some gears if needed

  5. Drew,

    Now that you explained it, I see your point. My problem with assisted machines as well as with using bands to assist with pull-ups, is that people never graduate from these “crutches.” A few weeks or a few months on the lat pull down and it’s time for pull-ups.

    John,

    First of all – congrats on your progress. The Pull-up is a very rewarding exercise, isn’t it? On to your question – the problem isn’t too common, but I’ve seen people who have mobility problems. You need to find out what causes this – it is something you do all the time (the way you sit for example?) or a sport you practiced.

    What kind of mobility did you try and did you progress on the mobility drills? These drills need to be done with progression, same like anything else in the gym 🙂 I will shoot on Friday a few mobility exercises at the gym.

    Raymond,

    Just remember that the lat pull down machine is just a stepping stone towards the pull-up. Weighted pull-ups are much better than using the whole stack on the lat pull down.

    Cheers guys!

    Yavor

  6. Good post Yavor…as you know I am a huge advocate of bodyweight exercise and one way I always ween people onto the pull up is my using the lat pulldown machine.

    This is a great and simple way to not only learn how to do a pull up but improve your current form on the pull up.

    good stuff!

    MIKE

  7. Mike,

    both you and me, man! Your wrestling background taught you the right fundamentals!

    Yavor

  8. Yavor,
    Excellent explanation as always. I’d add that inverted rows can provide a good starting point for someone who can’t do pullups as well. The motion is different than pullups (horizontal vs. vertical), but they can help strengthen the back.
    Dave

  9. Dave, that’s a good point. The advantage of the inverted row is that it is a bodyweight exercise like the pullup. The main disadvantage is that you can only progress in reps, whereas with the lat pull down, it is a safe bet that once you can pull your bodyweight, you are ready for a real pullup.

  10. Thanks for the quick reply Yavor. Pull-ups are one of the great exercises, no doubt about it!I’ve had shoulder problems before, but being a stubborn kind of guy I’ve taken care of most of it with band dislocations, srengthening of the real delts, scap push-ups and through being aware of my posture during the day. I’ve done Cresseys shoulder drills and seen some improvement. I’ve observed for a long time that it’s always the pronated grip that gives me problem. It doesn’t really matter if its deadlifts, DB-chest press or what not. Any drill where my hands are pronated under enough load causes irritation. On the upside; weighted push-ups, rings, KB and exercises where my hand and scapula are allowed to move in a neutral or supinated grip works great! Can it be that some people don’t have enough room in the shoulder joint to be inward rotated under load?
    Anyway, any suggestions or drills are more than welcomed, I will check out your videos on friday. The World Cup are just a day away, Sweden’s not in it this time, but it’s gonna be nice to watch some excellent football!

  11. John, Bulgaria didn’t make it either unfortunately. It isn’t ’94 anymore lol! Anyway – it would help if you thought about what caused this pain/injury/discomfort in the first place. I guess pronated grip is not forgiving – meaning that whenever you have a problem somewhere, the pronated grip will punish you, whereas the other two are easier on you…

    But at any rate it is not the grip – this is just a symptom.

    Also – at what position does it hurt – bottom, middle, up, everywhere?

  12. Hi again! -94 was a great year for sure. The summer was never ending and Sweden got bronze (The feeling was one of gold for sure=). I can’t remember exactly as it’s been years since I first felt it, but if remember correctly it was a military press that went a bit to far back and out of position, going to failure is rarely a good idea=). The funny thing is, these days a never really feel any pain in the shoulder during exercise and it feels very stable, it just feels funny the next couple of days, and not in a good way.I’ve been to chiropractors and physio therapists and they said that I had an unstable right shoulder in the forward and downward direction, I’ve strenghtened the muscles a’lot but the joint itself has probably not changed. Maybe I can get around it with increased mobility? Would love to be able to military press with a bar and do the regular pull-up.I understand that it’s hard to give advise over the net on something like this but if you have any drills I will absolutely try them out. Thinking about it,it’s absolutley the upper part of the movement where i feel the strain the most, I hope that helps=).
    Again, thanks for your time and help Yavor!

  13. John, apology accepted lol! 4th place was still the best our team has ever done…

    Now onto the pullups – I don’t think it’s a question of mobility. I think at this point it’s best to just protect the joint as well as possible. Over time I guess the rotator cuff muscles will improve. For joint protection :

    1. learn engage the back properly, if you haven’t already
    2. always keep the shoulder down, stuck to the torso. Any movement
    3. So on pullups always start with lowering the shoulders with the lats (with straight arms)

    Of course I will also suggest getting really really strong at rowing movements. I myself find the barbell row too subjective (body momentum instead of muscle), so I’d suggest doing 1 arm dumbbell rows for very high reps. 3 sets of 20-30 reps. Add weight when you are capable of 30 reps.

    Also, I’d suggest alternating between elbow in (lats) rows and elbow out (rear delt, teres muscles) rows every couple of weeks.

    Remember – do the motion with the lats and squeeze the mid back at the top.

  14. Awais

    Hello again I think I will need to start with the lat pull down to get my form right. When your arms are parallel to the ground how do you emphasize pulling with the elbows and the mid back muscles do I continue to flex my lats and arms. And how do I push my chest out at the finish.

    thank you

  15. Awais,

    yes you continue to flex the lats, but the arms remain locked at a little less than 90 degrees. But don’t worry about this, just focus on your elbows and pull them back.

    Pushing the chest out: – imagine a cord is attached to your chest bone – the sternum. Now imagine this cord is pulling your chest up towards the ceiling.

    This is a great exercise in good posture by the way. Seems dancers use this visualization to stay really upright.

    -Yavor

  16. Hello,

    How do you use your back and lats for rows, I find that I am always using my arms and not my back. Can you make a video if possible as well.

    Thanks for your help

  17. Thanks for this info Yavor… do like your form and will look at your site further.

    What do you think about this machine for gaining strength for bar muscle up and the transition between the pullup and dip especially? I see in the videos you are stopping at your chest, however by turning over your hands it’s possible to push down to your hips.
    Do you think this would translate well into the MU?

  18. Larry, you certainly can use the lat pull down to get stronger for pulling. The transition itself cannot be trained here. The transition is a matter of doing the pullup explosive enough so that it comes below your chest ideally.

    Now for the muscle up – the biggest key is getting strong and lean. That is it. The leaner and lighter you are, the better. If you have any excess fat, consider decreasing food a bit for a while to drop the fat. Similarly, getting stronger will help. Note however that getting rid of the excess fat will be easier.

    There is a certain amount of technique in the transition, but nothing beats being light (no excess fat) and being strong. And being light and lean comes first.

    So to recap:

    1.get lean if you have any excess fat
    2. get stronger on pullups (the lat pull down can be used but eventually weighted pullups are better)

    -Yavor

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